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Monday, 1 June 2009

Goodwin vs. Darwin

Isn't it time the British media stopped using Ruth Padel as a whipping post? The latest installment was Sunday's column in the Sunday Times, by Daisy Goodwin, which basically argues that children (including her daughter) should not be encouraged to become professional poets, because it is a vocation that cannot really be taught, and that is best practiced by people in banks or offices like Eliot or Stevens, not creative writing profs, as work provides the humanity that drives inspiration; amateur poetry is the thing.

Her main example of the poet gone wrong is Padel, who is described more than once as "ambitious" for quitting her academic teaching post at the age of 44 to concentrate on writing poetry. The article is really ludicrous, and ill-informed, and, more to the point, badly damaging, I think, to poetry. I am beginning to recognise that the main enemy of British poetry is the British media - their ideas of what poetry is, or should be, are rather quaintly Victorian, patronising, or worse - and curiously moralising and demanding - the media really "wants" poets to be a certain way - rather than perhaps admitting that, if anything at all, poetry is about freedom (okay, play with a net if you want, but not one sewn by a journalist surely).

Now, I agree that poetry is a vocation. But that doesn't mean poets have to "keep the day job" or avoid any human temptations, like ambition, or a drive to succeed. I find the tone of this article deeply negative to women. I mean, would Goodwin have cautioned Seamus Heaney against "leaving his day job" (he quit teaching to focus on poetry), or suggest that Don Paterson stop teaching poetry writing at St Andrews, roll up his sleeves, and become a surgeon or truck driver? No, the examples of the proper poets are all men - mostly dead white wealthy males - who were privileged or lucky enough to have money to set themselves up, and write as they pleased.

Goodwin fails to mention the great gains made for British women's poetry over the last 30 years, by women refusing to buy into the stereotypes about what poetry is. She also, rather puzzlingly, fails to mention how active Padel has been, working in all the various ways that poets do, around the poem. Goodwin, I think, makes the common mistake of defining a "poet" as someone who composes poems. That's like saying a surgeon is only doing their job when knee-deep in blood and gore. Poets are also working when reading poems, writing about poems, teaching poetry, organising events for other poets, editing other poets, putting together anthologies, and, speaking on the subject of poetry - or reading their poems aloud to audiences. None of this activity is futile, or outside the umbra of what can be considered the role of the poet.

Now, in the UK, a deeply conservative strain of thought wants poets not to have any roles other than the inspired, unambitious "natural" dispenser of poetic utterance - but in the 21st century this is facile. Indeed, there are many ways that poets can develop active, rewarding careers - in line with their vocation - as activists, editors, critics, researchers, teachers, and so on - and by keeping busy they whet their poetic talent for the next poem. Eliot, in fact, was pretty much a professional poet figure most of his life, as editor-critic - his other work entirely underwritten and rendered meaningful by his total commitment to the significance of the poet in relation to his culture and community.

Goodwin's simplistic ideas about poets would set any intelligent women or man, girl or boy, back decades. Poets now get out there and do things - make things happen - and this unsettling active poetics - a poetics of writing and communion with nature and others - is disturbing precisely because it is complex, hard to simplify, and not merely "romantic". Padel has done as much for British poetry since she "quit her day job" than any one I know. Her books on poetry inspire many, are touchstones, and brilliantly useful for teaching. Her own poetic research and travels made her poems better - her Darwin book is a masterpiece, and may win the TS Eliot Prize this year, if Paterson or Lumsden don't snatch it away.

Goodwin is wrong to think that Padel was uniquely pernicious in her choices - if anything, she's been one of the angels. The poetry world is highly competitive, filled with intelligent, educated, hard-working, serious, often decent and sensitive people. The ambitions that animate a superb poet are much more troublingly rich and strange than a newspaper article, or blog post, can explain or query. Milton's ambition was huge, as was Dante's. It seems a very ugly twist of fate that this poetic heroine for our times has become a gargoyle. The media in the UK is on a rampage, and is damaging good people. It should stop and smell the roses.
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